Ride the mountain rails

When Avi was little he loved a Canadian show called Mighy Machines; it features short documentaries about large equipment for kids.  There are episodes about recyling, lumber, farms, street cleaning, etc.  We all find them interesting, but one of Avi’s favorites has always been the episode called “Ride the Mountain Rails” about the trains that maintain and fix the White Pass and Yukon railroad. He has always wanted to ride that train, so I made a point of making that happen. We spent a whole day in the port town of Skagway. This is the place gold-seekers began their adventure, fresh off the boat from any number of cities. When the rush started in the 1890s there were two trails they would hike up to access the Yukon. Each person heading into Canada was required to have enough provisions for the entire year before the Mounties allowed them to cross the border – the list of recommended items would’ve weighed an actual ton.  All of these needed carried over the border and past the natural mountain barrier.  So, that’s about 40 trips, if each man lugged 50 lbs.

the town of Skagway became a bustling stock up point and it is now a National Park.  It’s certainly got charm. There are cute shops and restaurants, nice wooden sidewalks, and intermittent historical buildings.  The day we arrived was sunny and pleasant. We stayed at an RV park right in town, so walking around was fun and easy.


The kids loved the activities at the junior ranger center.  We panned for gold, tried on clothes, and learned about the prospectors.  They each earned a badge.


Zoe did some shopping of her own in one of the cruise ship sponsored stores.  It’s sign read “just come in for a free train charm” so we did and got one each.  Then Zoe bought an earring and necklace set.  Well,  that evening at the campground she was playing around and the necklace broke.  Next day we walked back and they replaced it!

The Chilkoot trail was an original Tlingit trade route and the first path used. It was only 33 miles but had a deadly steep section. A newer trail, the White Pass, was hacked through a more gradual natural ravine; it was longer at 40 miles but pack animals could be used.    The chilkoot was popular for cost and time savings, but the white pass was easier.  Eventually there were some tramways and then the railroad to bring prospectors north.


Once up to Bennet, they would build boats and navigate the waterways up to the Yukon town of Dawson. We didn’t go that far on the train, instead I reserved a forest service cabin just a bit up the track.  This was special: a caboose!

Our train up was nice and on time. Avi was out of his mind that he was on the White Pass… the old times cars are still heated by burners at one end.    We got off when the trains stopped to announce Denver. There was a sign and the caboose, that’s it! Another group got off with us as they were hiking to the Denver glacier. We didn’t see anyone again.


In the caboose we had a heater, a table, some benches, two beds that could double as benches, a loft in the top part, and a couple more convertible benches/ beds in the back.  I could totally live in a space like that all the time!  The kids chose the loft bed, of course, and I slept by the heater.


It was fun to ‘move in’ with our camp pads and sleeping bags, food, and stove. I took a while figuring out how the oil heater worked, the kids played by stream, and we waved to all the trains going past taking pictures of us.


In the afternoon we took a pretty hike up the trail to a waterfall. The kids had stick-sword fights all along the way until Zoe slipped on a super mossy rock and bashed her knee hard. She was a trooper, though, and walked out strong.

I also twisted my ankle in a glorious fashion walking to the outhouse. I’ve done it before so the walk off wasn’t too bad, but it is still sore the next day. Sleeping was rough, but not just my ankle it was also very very bright outside!

In the morning we cleaned up and played by the river a bit where the train went over a big trestle. When we heard the long whistle followed by three short, we knew we needed to be by the sign to wave it down.  A true whistle stop!



Back in Skagway, we got to hang out with conductor and watch him direct the engine around to a switcher and move to the other end of the train. Avi was so curious and asking how he got his job! I could see my little guy with a job like that.


We got in the camper and drove the road up the rest of the White pass following the train route and thinking of those original prospectors lugging junk this far. It seemed beautiful.  Our trip was just full of fog, though, so I’m guessing it’s really pretty. We glimpsed waterfalls and gorges up past customs and into the Yukon of Canada!

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